Is It a Wrongful Termination or a Legal Firing?

Employers and employees need to have clear understandings of their rights in the workplace, both individually and in relation to each other. One area of evolving legal definition is an employer's rights in firing an employee and, conversely, an employee's rights to job protection under the law. What may have once been considered a legal firing may now be considered a wrongful termination of an employee.

Mississippi law follows the "employment at will" doctrine, which gives an employer the right to dismiss for any reason an employee that was hired for a period of time or an indefinite term. However, both the Mississippi Supreme Court and new federal laws have clearly defined specific instances where an employee's firing is wrongful or illegal.

Mississippi's high court has ruled that if a company creates procedures that employers must follow in terminating an employee and outlines those steps in the employee handbook or guidance policy, supervisors must follow them. In addition, anyone employed for a definite term, including through a written contract, cannot be fired at will. In such a case, the employer must show just cause for terminating the employee before the term expires.

In the past 35 years, the federal government has passed several laws that protect employees and define specific causes for wrongful termination. Under these laws, an employer cannot dismiss an employee on the basis of race, religion, sex, age, national origin, disability, or for engaging in union activities. The law considers such actions as discriminatory and wrongful termination. If you believe you lost your job for any of these reasons, you need to contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or, in the case of union activities, the National Labor Relations Board as quickly as possible to preserve your rights.

A whistle blower, an individual who reports wrong doing on the employer's part, does have some job protection under the law. The Mississippi Supreme Court has recently created a public policy exception to the employment-at-will doctrine to protect whistle blowers. The federal Whistle Blowers Protection Act of 1989, Fair Labor Standards Act and Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 also offer a degree of protection for employees who report violations of certain statutes.

Employees cannot claim wrongful termination because they refused to take a drug test. In 1991, the Mississippi Legislature enacted a measure which allows employers to use an employee's refusal to take a drug test, either during an application or after employment, as a basis for not hiring or discharging an employee.

Federal law sides with employees when a company closes down or moves. Employers with 100 or more employees must give at least 60 days notice of a long layoff or plant closing. Failure to do so gives the displaced employees grounds for suit under the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification legislation.

Employers and employees both have rights in the workplace. The employer must fulfill his or her part of the job agreement through salary, benefits and a safe work environment, and the worker must perform the job as described and assigned. For the protection of both the employer and employee, knowing these rights can prevent wrongful terminations and prolonged legal action.